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Haiti's fate hangs on Aristide's choice
Updated: 2004-02-28 16:39

Cornered by a raging insurrection and encouraged to step aside by the international community, Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide's decision as to whether to give up is shaping up as the key to Haiti's political fate.

"At this time, he is not going to leave," a senior western diplomat said Friday.

A boy stands near the bodies of two slain Haitian men in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 27, 2004. Rebels took over a key crossroads town and edged closer to the capital while supporters of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide mounted defenses against a bloody rebellion that threatened to toppled Haiti's government. [Reuters]
A proposal on Thursday to get Aristide to leave the country failed "but the consensus in the embassies is that he will be forced to leave," the diplomat added.

Aristide is holed up in the snow-white National Palace, a walled-in island in a city that has been plunged into anarchy, surrounded by "chimeres," groups of armed supporters who on Friday burned, pillaged, looted and sometimes killed around the capital of this poorest country in all the Americas.

Even as violence swirled around him, Aristide Friday repeated his defiant resolve to serve out his elected term of office which ends in February 2006, warning that thousands could be killed by the rebels who have vowed to oust him.

"I have the responsibility as an elected president to stay where I am, protecting the people the way I am, the way I can, asking the US and international community to stand against terrorists," he said in an interview with CNN cable television news.

"He does not want not to be president, and he is going to cling to power until the end," predicted Georges Michel, a history professor and journalist.

"His departure is inevitable," said Rebu Himmler, a former colonel and a leader of a think on Haiti's future, GREH.

For Michel, the drama could play out two ways.

In the best-case, he said, Aristide would accept a negotiated departure, a "national unity" government would be formed, and a prime minister would be chosen by the high court.

But in the relatively worse case, rebels would storm Port-au-Prince. Friday, they took Mirebalais, a three-hour drive from the capital.

Former police commissioner Guy Philippe, their military chief, wants to capture Aristide and put him on trial. Rebel political chief Winter Etienne told AFP the insurgents do not want to take power, but rather to hand it over to the high court so that constitutional order can be restored.

There does seem to be one condition: they want the Haitian army -- dissolved by Aristide in 1995, and to which many of the rebels belonged -- relaunched.

Michel however does not see the insurgents as having a victory sewn up. According to Rebu Himmler, there are some "1,000 to 2,000 Chimeres under arms" who can try to hold their ground, and more than 700 men backing the insurgents.

The police are demoralized and ill-equipped to fight armed forces. Their ranks, about 5,000, so far have not stopped any rebel advances in cities and towns around Haiti.

A third scenario exists: a direct international armed intervention to protect humanitarian interests and control violence. Such a move could force Aristide's departure and lead to installation of a new leadership.

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